Nuclear power in the Alberta oilsands: steps, baby steps, and pre-baby steps

Imagine an oilsands operation in Alberta where the heat to make the steam that separates oil from sand is delivered from a small nuclear reactor, which arrives on a flatbed truck. At the site, the reactor is entombed in a below-ground bunker, where it could withstand a hit from a Russian AT-14 antitank missile (which can penetrate 1.2 meters of steel). When the area is mined out, the reactor goes onto another flatbed and rolls over to the next site.

Such a reactor, called a “nuclear battery,” would require no on-site refuelling. When it has burned through its fuel, which could take 5–25 years depending on the make and model, it would go back to the country that exported it. Nobody in Alberta would be stuck having to deal with spent nuclear fuel.

I’m not the first person to see that such a scenario would go a long way to dramatically reducing the emissions that go with current oilsands processing, and defeating the claims that oilsands oil is dirty—nuclear energy releases no greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. I’m also not the first to see that it would result in oil recovery that is much cheaper than today’s natural gas–based processes.

But if there were ever anything easier said than done, this is it. The problem is not raising the money to buy a small reactor. The Hyperion, a uranium-hydride-fueled reactor the size of an SUV, apparently will sell for around US$30 million. Oilsands operators are used to far bigger capital expenditures.

The problem is getting the license to operate the machine. Canadian nuclear regulations were designed to deal with large power reactors, like the CANDUs in Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick. These reactors require on-site refueling and on-site spent fuel storage, which necessitate large emergency planning zones. Nuclear battery vendors believe their small self-contained units will require far smaller emergency planning zones. They may be right. The problem is, no western nuclear regulator has any experience with these machines.

And few if any of the civilian small reactors have the years of operating experience that would provide the basis for risk-informed evaluation. Reactors that propel ships and submarines have been around since the 1950s and have accumulated excellent in-service records that you can measure in decades. But again, no civilian regulator is familiar with them.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, in situ oilsands mining is growing in importance in Alberta. This means that for nuclear energy to play a decisive role in the Alberta oilsands, it will have to be based on small reactors.

What are the chances, then, of obtaining the necessary regulatory approval for a nuclear-based oilsands operation in Alberta? We won’t find out until a vendor submits its reactor to a Vendor Pre-Project Design Review at the Canadian Nuclear Saftey Commission (CNSC). The CNSC tells me this could take a year and a half and cost over $3 million.

This raises a chicken-and-egg question. Who should pay for this review, a reactor vendor or an oilsands operator? And, given the current criteria by which CNSC evaluates reactor designs, would it really take only a year and a half? In the case of a reactor based on, say, the lead-bismuth technology that powers Russian Alpha-class submarines, there are years of operating experience. Could that experience carry over to a civilian machine based on the same technology?

It is hard to see a reactor vendor stepping up for such a review without some kind of support from an end user. It is equally hard to see an end user supporting (i.e., putting money toward) a review that carries no guarantee of success.

On the other hand, it’s only $3 million. Given that this is a global problem for vendors of small reactors, one will have to go through the process sooner or later. So: is Canada the venue?

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11 years ago

As an Albertan, one nuclear technology I’d like to see reviewed is MSR (Molten Salt Reactor). This can be designed to take thorium or uranium as fuel. David LeBlanc (in Ontario) traveled to Chicago to speak about MSR, and his talk covers potential use in Alberta’s Oil Sands.

I’m working on a doc about Molten Salt Reactors (focusing mainly on those designed to take thorium as a fuel). If anyone in Alberta’s energy sector cares to participate I’d be happy to interview you.

Please contact me at if you’d like to chime in on Oil Sands, renewables, nuclear, natural gas… pretty much any aspect of energy as it applies to Alberta.